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The Wisdom of Bishop Tutu and Climate Change

Bishop Desmond Tutu

Like many of you (I’m sure), one of the first newsflashes I read the morning after Christmas concerned the loss of an international spiritual leader, longtime freedom fighter, advocate for human rights, and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, South Africa’s Archbishop Emeritus, Desmond Tutu.

Ironically, for Christmas gifts in 2020, I gave a few of my friends a copy of a 2016 New York Times best seller, The Book of Joy, detailing a warm, intimate, and thought-provoking conversation that took place over five days in the spring of 2015 between Archbishop Tutu and the 14th Dali Lama.

“The Archbishop explains that in African Villages, one would ask in a greeting, “How are we?” This understanding sees that someone else’s achievements or happiness is a very real way our own. So rejoicing in others’ good fortune really brings a lot of positive benefits.”

In the book, they tackled the question How do you find joy in the face of life’s inevitable suffering, providing answers—at times with humor–rooted in their individual faiths and personal journeys.

In gifting it I hoped it would help assuage, possibly help make sense of the suffering and trauma imposed by the coronavirus in 2020.

In the wake of Archbishop Tutu’s passing, I pulled this book from my shelf for a quick reminder of his wit and wisdom as we come to the end of another tumultuous year, knowing, without much doubt, that another tumultuous year waits in the wings.

After nearly two years of learning to navigate life safely during COVID-19, one thing remains consistent in the fight against COVID-19– communities of color and the poor continue experiencing disproportionate impacts.

In addition, as the inland region of Southern California seeks to balance its acquiescence to low-skilled warehouse jobs as a solution to a once struggling economy in a region that was already well-known for its sub-standard air quality, the need to seek and deploy optimal mitigation remains somewhat elusive while the area’s poorest and least capable of bearing the additional burden of a relentless pandemic in addition to the health impacts of degraded air quality that comes with increased truck traffic moving in and out of the region.

These major considerations appeared to collide and reveal even greater concerns for these communities when an interdisciplinary group of University of California Riverside (UCR) professors released a commentary over the summer highlighting the need to investigate the connection between exposure to air pollution, working conditions, race, poverty and how they work together to increase COVID-19 exposure in the region.

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This, in my opinion, added weight to the argument that the outsized impact of the pandemic on Black, Indigenous and other people of color (BIPOC) is about more than underlying health conditions—which certainly has an aspect of credibility but also serves as the typical and historical way this country, at all levels of government, continues to position and center such conversations around blaming the victims—as a way of partly absolving the government and institutions and industries of responsibility and accountability by centering the conversation away from the brutal and systemic practices and policies that undergird these outcomes in the first place. It is kind of like a murderer blaming his victim for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As noted in UCR’s report, areas with high numbers of COVID-19 cases also have “very high environmental vulnerability scores caused by air pollution from trucks associated with the numerous warehouses in these neighborhoods, among other factors.” Earlier research, as noted in the commentary, showed “small increases in particulate matter translate to an 11% increase in the Covid-19 death rate.”

Looking to the future, concerns around this issue may be even further complicated by climate change. Just as science has revealed over the years how the emissions of pollutants into the air can result in changes to the climate, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has argued the same thing can be true in reverse—that climate change impacts air quality.

According to the EPA, “Changes in climate can result in impacts to local air quality.” The report further notes that such change can potentially increase ground-level ozone (smog).

Of course, decisions regarding how successfully and aggressively measures to mitigate the impacts of a growing warehouse industry, an ongoing pandemic, and the challenges of a rapidly changing climate here in the inland region, depends in large part on who we elect to make these decisions on our behalf.

2022 will provide another opportunity for voters to weigh in and elect representatives at the local (state and federal levels) who will continue the fight for equity.

These are daunting challenges, but I believe real solutions are not the temporary band aids we apply at the moment of crisis but instead get to the root of the problem and excise it.

As Archbishop Tutu stated, “We need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”

Stephanie Williams

Stephanie Williams

Rest in peace Desmond Tutu. I pray we find the courage to follow your wisdom in this regard.I “thank you all” for your readership in 2021, and as I close out this year of commentary, I look forward to unapologetically and always in my opinion, “Keeping it Real “in 2022.

Stephanie Williams

Black Voice News